Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Gingers* Unite, or Don't: Myths Debunked

*Title editing courtesy of Uncle Scott

One of the courses I'm taking in summer school is human genetics. the professor is trying hard to keep lectures and discussions interesting for us. Today he addressed the topic of hair color in general, and red hair in particular.

A few times in the past ten years or so, rumors of the imminent extinction of red hair have circulated. One rumor predicted that the last natural redhead will be born in or near the year 2060. The rumors have been attributed to reliable sources such as National Geographic and the World Health Organization; incorrectly so, as it turned out. At least one of the publicized reports was linked to the Oxford Hair foundation, which is either owned or heavily supported by Proctor and Gamble corporation, which produces, among other things, hair coloring products/ This to me seems silly. The idea, even if it were true, of red hair dying out shouldn't make us go by up all the red hair dye on the shelves. Even if there were any substance to the reports, the ingredients that go into red hair coloring products are not reportedly in any danger of becoming extinct.

Red hair is caused by a mutation in the MC1R gene. It's also a recessive trait, so it takes both parents passing on a mutated version of the MC1R gene to produce a redheaded child. Because it's a recessive trait, red hair can easily skip a generation. It can then reappear after skipping one or more generations if both parents, no matter their hair color, carry the red hair gene.

Red hair has existed for centuries. It is believed that red hair was possessed by some Neanderthals, though the cause (MC1R genetic mutation) is not thought to be the cause. Queen Elizabeth I had red hair. Dark red hair was found in ancient Chinese tribes. Red hair is common in some Polynesian tribes. When forces from the roman empire first encountered people in Caledonia [Scotland], the Romans described the caledonis as having large lips and red hair. In fact, contrary to popular thought, Scotland has the largest concentration of natural redheads per capita (12%), with Ireland coming in second at 10%. Ireland does have the highest concentration of individuals possessing the MC1R genetic mutation. The U. S. has a percentage of 3-4 % natural redheads, but has the largest actual number of natural redheads. Northern and Western Europe's natural redhead population has been estimated at between 5 and 6%. Worldwide, the rate of natural redheads is well below 2%.

Red hair and the usually-accompanying fair skin were conducive to solar and ultraviolet absorption. This, at latitudes closer to polar regions, the trait would have been advantageous. Greater sun absorption would have adided in Vitamin D acquisition, preventing rickets. Likewise, heat absortion would have been maximized, which would have been an advantage in cold weather regions. On the other hand, in regions closer to the equator, the coloring associated with red hair would have been a decided disadvantage. Heat absorption would not have been a positive trait, and the tendencency toward skin cancer would have been great among those with red hair and fair skin.

Scientists have studied possible relationships between red hair and various physical and psychological characteristics. To date, there is no known study documenting the link between red hair and a fiery temperament. There is, on the other hand, scientific and medical documentation that natural redheads require greater amounts of general anaesthesia during surgical procedures. Strangely enough, natural redheads require smaller amounts of certain types of the narcotic painkiller morphine.

My uncle, who is a pediatrician, noted thaat nurses who have worked for him tell him that redheaded children often run higher fevers with a given illness than do children with hair of other colors. I asked my professor about this. He hadn't heard; he scanned his computer during a break, and found nothing either to support or to refute that hypothesis. I also told him that my mom had noted a higher incidence of left-handed redheads in her career. He said that has been noted but not studied sufficiently to be

The bottom line here is that, even if we're worried about the extinction of natural red hair, we don't all have to be tested for the MC1R genetic mutation. Unless there were a holocaust to rid the world of all who possess the recessive trait, chances are that redheads will continue to pop out at about the same rate they are now appearing for the considerable future. if not, we'll always have Proctor and Gamble and other companies to help us recreate the look. And Prince Harry, let your heart guide your choice between Chelsy Davy and Pippa Middleton. You do not shoulder the responsibility to keep the world ginger for upcoming generations.


  1. I'm not sure what this Uncle Scott guy edited out of your titles and labels, but he is no fun at all.

  2. On my late father's side of the family there are a number of red heads. Mysteriously though my hair colour is dark brown I actually have ONE red hair! Which is very red in deed!

  3. One red hair? That is interesting indeed, Matt.

  4. My mom's grandparents moved to the US from Ireland in the 1930's or 40's...most of my mom's family is redheaded. My mom's color is around a dark strawberry blonde, my hair is more of an auburn, and my sister's hair is this funky dark burgundy red (it almost looks purple when the sun hits it). Everyone is convinced that my sister dyes her hair when they first meet her. I've always loved being labeled "the crazy red head"...I can tell you, I had less people mess with me because of my red hair. People really do equate redheads to have horrible tempers (which I really do, but I don't think it's just the hair).

    Also, I have rheumatoid arthritis and since I have been a total pin cushion and lab rat for the past 8 years I've noticed a lot of things about how my body reacts to anesthesia and pain meds. I do require more anesthesia and my body is weirdly sensitive to certain types of narcotics. When my sister was 2, she fell and knocked out her two front teeth...they had to give her anesthesia 3 times before they could finally knock her out enough to remove the tooth that was embedded.

    Matt: holy crow, that's cool!! You are unique! That's better than having one GREY hair for sure, huh? :)

  5. Tina, this is interesting information. I wonder if these factors affecting pain and the reaction to various drugs are part of the MC1R gene, or if there is even more genetically at work than is presently recognized byt the scientific and medical communities.

    My mom's mom was from Ireland, and her dad's parents were from there as well. The seven kids in my mom's family all have medium to dark brown hair; only one even has red highlights. my mom does have a couple of first cousins living in ireland who have red hair.

  6. GIRL. I have totally "wasted" (I use quotes only because I really don't consider the time I've spent as wasted) the last 90 minutes reading your blog! If you had not mentioned your age, I would have sworn on a stack of IHOP pancakes (because I think it's just sacrilegious to swear on a Bible, IMO) that you were much older than you are. I am completely enthralled with your writing style. You have such depth and insight that most people twice your age will NEVER achieve.

    I'm going to do more research into the MC1R gene; I'm of the belief that my hormones have a lot to do with the development of rheumatoid arthritis and several other conditions (including anxiety and depression) that I deal with. I had started researching the "read head anomaly" after I was given anesthesia for surgery, but haven't searched out new information since then. (I am a medical coder; anything medical fascinates me. If it weren't for my deep aversion to having people in my personal space, and therefore, being in others personal space, I would have gone to nursing school. As it is, I'm a wimp! Thankfully my weekly injections are with an enclosed auto-injector so I don't have to actually see the needle.)

    I've reached the point where I'm rambling. On your blog comments. *sigh* That's when I know I've been on the computer for too many hours. I intended only to tell you what a great writer you are and how happy I am to have stumbled upon your blog! Keep up the awesome work...I get the feeling we will definitely be reading your work in print some day soon!